Civil forfeiture laws seem to give police the right to commandeer anything, including cash, that they deem associated with a real or "potential" crime and use it to buy, in one police chief's words, "toys." Like a zamboni or margarita machine. Let John Oliver explain.
Criminal forfeiture involves having your stuff confiscated because you used it for evil. A gun you shot somebody with, a car you used to run somebody down. But civil forfeiture is when your stuff is prosecuted for being something that may or may not be involved in criminal activity, regardless of whether or not any charges are levied against you.
Big issues rear their head regarding people carrying large amounts of cash. Sure, normal people don't often carry thousands of dollars. But there are plenty of legitimate reasons to do so... for example; going to buy a car or a business. And Oliver trots out several unsettling examples of cops helping themselves to people's property even when they're able to substantiate reasons for legitimately carrying a couple grand.
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Scott Bullock, Senior Attorney at The Institute for Justice, goes so far as to say "your property is guilty until you prove it innocent."
The Washington Post estimates that some 61,998 such cash seizures have been carried out since September 11th, totaling a staggering value of 2.5 billion, from people who were not charged with a crime.
In Massachusetts, Worcester County DA's office was cited using such money to buy a zamboni. You know, a machine that smooths ice rinks? The location of that machine "could not be found" nor could "the law-enforcement purpose it serves" be determined by state auditors.
Oliver managed to find the most abhorrent examples of these laws being abused, including a particularly damning testimony from Colombia, Missouri's Police Chief Ken Burton at a 2012 Citizen Review Board Hearing (around 08:50):
Board member: "How do you decide forfeiture funds?"
Chief: "There's some limitations on it, you know it's, um, actually there's not really..."
Oliver goes on to explain that fighting a civil forfeiture case can involve getting your complaint passed the DA, the office you'd be bringing your complaint against, before you're allowed to be seen by a judge. Oliver says "Recourse is so difficult that most people who've lost their stuff to civil forfeiture just choose to walk away," though he doesn't specify how common "giving up" is exactly.
If you're outraged about this and/or wondering why you hadn't been sooner, this clip is hardly the first public figure calling bullshit on civil forfeiture. Which almost makes it scarier; because I'm having a hard time find examples of it being used with a positive effect on the community or any attempts to reform its processes.